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Soft toss: Billy Bob's bawdy Bad Santa shtick can't save Linklater's dull remake from irrelevance

I was but a wee moviegoing shaver, but The Bad News Bears (1976), possibly the least condescending Hollywood film ever made about kids, tore up my suburban turf. At the stirring climax, when a bellicose, saw-voiced little shit named Tanner (Chris Barnes) answered the triumphant baseball team's patronizing sportsmanship with a rousing call to "take your apology and your trophy and shove 'em straight up your ass!" I had a hero. Finally, a movie that called the cards on the Disney Lie and dared to see the hard-nosed, adult-reamed, early-adolescent universe for what it was.

But the 1970s made such a stanky bloom inevitable; Bill Lancaster's ultra-realist script gave the underdog sports movie a joyful flogging, and director Michael Ritchie was, for a few movies, uniquely equipped to lift the rock on American hypocrisy. Richard Linklater's new version—sans that bothersome article, which some marketing tapeworm had decided was one word too many for 2005's dimmer teens—has no point to make and little grace with which to make it. Being a retread, the original screenplay's beats and flourishes are traced out accordingly: Ne'er-do-well lout Buttermaker (Billy Bob Thornton) is asked to coach a Little League team of epic incompetency, which he does at first with drunken carelessness and then, later, with attention and unscrupulous ambition. The kids, hampered by various handicaps, immigration status, weight issues, and plain nerdiness, begin to win, with the help of an ace pitcher (Sammi Kane Kraft, as Buttermaker's ex-girlfriend's daughter) and an ace everything-else (Jeffrey Davies, as a local delinquent with talent).

What's been changed demonstrates what a difference 30 years makes: Buttermaker is no longer Walter Matthau's slouchy, semi-articulate pool cleaner with a lazy thirst for beer in the dugout (I knew that guy) but Thornton, a rummy, tattooed, stripper-dating pest killer who, most unnecessarily, actually has a Major League backstory that's clumsily referred to whenever the plot needs an infusion of pathos. Matthau's Buttermaker had no reserve tanks of self-pity to tap; what little he knew about baseball came from a lifetime of watching. Thornton's loser isn't nearly as witty or convincing, and while Billy Bob's got this Bad Santa, fouling-the-brats-to-their-faces shtick down, and nobody has as much panache with stealth-fired profanities, there's a contrived disconnect with real life where there should be only connectedness.

Hardly the kids'-sports movie we need: Kraft, Thornton, and Deters
photo: Deana Newcomb/Paramount Pictures
Hardly the kids'-sports movie we need: Kraft, Thornton, and Deters

Not to mention, spaz paradigm Lupus isn't a nose picker anymore, and when Buttermaker dishes out beer, it's nonalcoholic. Which would all be a fart in the wind if the film clicked, but Linklater seems at a loss with his inexperienced cast (only Timmy Deters, as Tanner, hits his lines with a thwack; Kraft, apparently cast for her pitching, belongs on Disney Channel sitcoms). More often than not, the one-liners peter out like afterthoughts, when they're not repetitive (Thornton likens too many things to his own turds, and there are no fewer than two Helen Keller howlers). Greg Kinnear, smugging up a dust devil as the gung ho car dealer opponent coach, is something less than two-dimensional. While the inspirational speeches sprout like crabgrass, gameplay-montage song interludes practically run over one another.

For all the care Linklater demonstrates with his camera and cuts, it's almost a movie Buttermaker could've made, but more irksome is the ordained focus on plot undulation and simplistic motivation, as if nobody remembered that the first film was a social satire. No more than Kicking and Screaming (or God help us, the Keanu Reeves headache Hard Ball), Bad News Bears is hardly the kids'-sports movie we need, but maybe it's as much as we can handle. There's no discomfiting America on view, only Hollywood.

 
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